After decades of cheap rent, some Montreal artists find themselves locked out of their studios

Over the past 32 years, painter Frances Foster has watched the view from her studio window shift from old railroad yards and dilapidated factories to trendy businesses, new residents and high-end automobiles.

The interior, however, feels empty. Foster was one of more than a dozen artists who worked in the former industrial building. Today, she is one of two left, after narrowly surviving an eviction attempt that led to everyone else leaving for the past three years.

The owners dropped their case to evict her last year “because they had achieved their goal of evicting the majority of the artists, some of whom had lived in the building for more than 20 years,” he said.

Named a UNESCO City of Design in 2006, Montreal has long been known as an artists’ paradise, thanks to its vibrant cultural scene and rock-bottom rents. But as rents rise and former industrial neighborhoods are redeveloped, some artists are finding themselves excluded or evicted as the community searches for creative solutions.

Foster said when he moved into the building, the surrounding area was virtually abandoned “and it was a scary neighborhood.” But around 2021 it had become gentrified, leading the building’s owner to decide to remodel it and move in artists like Foster, who still pays less than $1,000 in monthly rent.

It’s a very common scenario, says the leader of a group that represents the province’s visual artists.

“What we already know is that the situation of artists is increasingly precarious,” said Camille Cazin, president of the Quebec Group of Artists in Visual Arts. She said the group recently launched a survey to determine the extent of the impact of rising rents and living costs on artists, and received 450 responses on the first day.

Like Foster, many artists settle in urban areas with the cheapest price per square foot of space. But over time, the presence of artists in previously economically depressed areas, such as St-Henri or Mile End in Montreal, made the districts more attractive, leading to price increases.

“Unfortunately, that’s the problem with artist studios: Artists are attracted to low prices and real estate investors are attracted to artists,” Cazin said.

Several artists told The Canadian Press they have had to change studios several times or haven’t found anything affordable.

André Laplante, a painter and graphic artist, said that a few years ago he was forced to move out of a studio he rented with other artists after some of them could not pay their share. He said the precariousness of artists is amplified by what he calls the “double income” phenomenon.

“We pay rent to live somewhere, and we have to pay another rent to have an artistic practice that often contributes nothing financially, or very little,” he said in a telephone interview.

Aida Vosoughi, a painter and visual artist, said she had to leave her former studio because her scholarship was not renewed. Vosoughi, who now works in a smaller space linked to the University of Quebec in Montreal, said most of the aid is only for one year at a time, meaning “there’s always a worry about next year.” .

Foster said she briefly looked at other rental spaces while facing eviction and was “horrified,” not only by the prices, but also by the thought of having to leave a community in which she is deeply rooted.

“I’m 65 years old, I’ll be 66 in April. So I have a lot more to say and do in this life and I want to make sure I stay in this place that I love,” said co-founder Foster. of a group that recently managed to transform a vacant lot into a park.

The city of Montreal says it recognizes the problem and is working to help secure affordable spaces for visual artists, including through a program that subsidizes their rents. Last year, more than 400 artists used the program, which subsidizes $13 per square meter for creative spaces and $3 per square meter for storage, according to Ericka Alneus, a member of the city’s executive committee responsible for arts and culture.

The province’s Department of Culture and the city have also teamed up on a $30 million program to pay for the renovation of buildings that house artists’ studios, often owned by artist collectives or non-profit organizations that have been united to buy them, Alneus said.

One such project is Ateliers 3333, created by renowned painter and novelist Marc Seguin after he and other artists were evicted from the building that housed their studios. In response, he partnered with a real estate company and a social development company to buy a former industrial building in the city’s St-Michel district and renovate it with a $5 million grant from the fund.

Today, it is a workspace for dozens of artists who pay reasonable rents, according to Stéphane Ricci, vice president of development at the Angus Development Society, one of the project partners. The building is run as a non-profit organization.

“I think it’s a very interesting model because it allows artists to have some stability,” he said.

However, there are also challenges, including the need for capital and technical know-how; having to deal with rising interest rates, construction costs and taxes; and cover expenses by charging low rents that artists can afford.

However, he considers it a success. “We have about 130, 140 artists who are installed there and they will never be evicted by the landlord because they have found someone willing to pay more,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2024.

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